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Epiphany and Edwin Friedman
January 9, 2000
Larry Reimer

Micah 6:6-8
There are two forces constantly pulling us in opposite directions. One force is the connection with our past heritage of our parents, grandparents and ancestors. The other force is the need to break loose and live our own lives. On good days those two forces are like a good workout, strengthening us, stretching muscles that would otherwise grow flabby and useless. On bad days they are like the torture rack of the middle ages in which one set of chains is hooked to our arms and another set of chains is hooked to our feet while a sweating sadist continues to ratchet those chains tighter and tighter. Look back over the time you spent with extended family over the holidays. Do you feel like you’ve had a good session at the fitness center or was it more like having your joints ripped apart on the torture rack? Or was it some combination of both?

I have some good news and bad news. This theme, "From Generation to Generation" will help you understand the place of your history and heritage in determining who you are. It will help you get unstuck from places in your work, your family, your faith where you just don’t understand why you keep coming back to the same issues over and over again. The bad news is that it won’t make the tug of war between your past and future go away.

Last week I explained that Epiphany means a sudden recognition of truth, the Aha! that comes with slamming the heel of your hand into your forehead and the exclaiming, "Now I get it." In the bible, Epiphany sees this truth as a gift of God. It is what happens on the twelfth day of Christmas, the day the Magi arrive at the manger, which in church calendars happened last Thursday.

Now who is this Edwin Friedman of the sermon title, and what does he have to do with epiphany? Friedman, who died just a few years ago, was a rabbi and counselor who believed that family history held perhaps the most important clues to understanding those places where our lives get stuck. The field is called family systems therapy. Friedman expanded the field to help us understand that we often take issues from the families we grew up in not only to our own marriages and families, but also to our work, our churches, our friendships. We get stuck looking at life from the perspective our own family history, and we tend to judge the rest of the world by that system.

The key to understanding the role of our family in our lives is like the quote attributed to Georges Santayana that those do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In other words, those who do not understand their family history are doomed to repeat it.

Friedman tells this story as an example.
Late one afternoon a moth emerged from its cocoon and happened to see a fly buzzing around a window. The moth had nothing much to do itself, so it just watched this fly. The fly would fly toward the window pane, stay motionless for an indefinite period of time and then without any signal, fly back up into the air, only to return to the same window pane, just a few inches away.

Finally the moth asked the fly, "What are you doing?"

"What do you mean, what am I doing?" replied the fly, "Can’t you tell?" The fly took off again, and then came down on the windowpane, just a few inches away again.

All day long he would take off and land again, explaining to the moth that he was quite busy and didn’t have time to talk. The moth kept asking just what the fly was looking for or where it was going. The moth also explained that the window was closed and there were no cracks in it. "Well, duh," replied the fly, "tell me something I don’t know."

The moth never could get a sense of the fly’s goal, and none of his suggestions about perhaps finding another window, going in a new direction had any impact. The fly realized there was no way through the window and said his plan was to just try harder at what he was doing.

The moth kept trying to explain to the fly that he needed a different attitude, a different perspective. The fly replied that if he stopped to think there would be less time for landings.

Finally the day ended. The moth had made no impact on the fly. The moth then noticed a light off in the distance. The moth, if by secret command, took of in direction of the glow of the light, where it crackled itself to a crisp on the electric arc. (Friedman’s Fables, Edwin Friedman, 1990, Guilford Press, pp. 33-35).

The moth and the fly are both trapped in the worldview of their own family systems. Neither could explain anything to the other. Neither could learn anything from the other unless they first examined their own history. If the moth had been less interested in telling the fly how to live, his own chances for survival might have increased.

When couples come to Sandy and me in preparation for marriage, we ask each partner to draw their own family tree and show it to the other. We ask them to code how parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters deal with conflict. We ask them to look for recurring patterns such as loss of jobs, size of families, divorce, death, and addiction. We ask them to remember how their families dealt with vacations, illness, school, and passages like graduations and marriage.

Those family patterns become ingrained in all of us. We take them with us into our own marriages, into relationships, into our own careers. If we understand them, they are gifts. If we don’t realize how they function, they can trap us.

Sandy and I, like some of you I imagine, get really stuck on an issue between us from time to time. When we realize that we’re getting nowhere, we try to stop and ask when either of us has felt this way before. Where have we been through this pattern in our families, in growing up? Usually we don’t do this quickly and calmly, when it would be easy. Most of the time we will have had a good argument first which has sent each of us into our respective corners of stubbornness and sullenness.

But when we look back at our own patterns rather than trying to make the other person change their habits, like the moth with the fly, we often learn something and are able to break out of being stuck.

For example, in our early marriage, we almost always got in fights when I would go away on a trip. Remember the line in John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, "Why do we always fight when I have to go?" Sandy would turn to the stereo and reply to John Denver, "The question should be, ‘Why do you always have to go?’"

After years of tears and turmoil surrounding this same issue in our lives, we finally asked what familiar patterns from each of our pasts did my going away stir up? Sandy had a strong feeling of being abandoned. Important people in her life would punish her by shutting her off emotionally and physically, leaving her, as it were. Meanwhile I had a strong experience of my mother making me feel guilty any time I got to go anywhere special. When my college choir went to Europe, my mother sat and moped, wishing she could go to Europe, which in reality she and my dad could have done any time they wanted. I felt guilty the whole trip. Our family histories concocted a pretty volatile mixture. Now, when the ingredients come together, we try to be ready for it. I’ve learned that when Sandy says she’ll miss me, it doesn’t mean she resents my going. I’ve also learned to stay connected, to call often when I’m gone something my father never did when he was anywhere involving work. I’ve learned to recognize the impact of my absence.

While I’ve given an experience of using this perspective in marriage, it is just as helpful in understanding places we get stuck in dating, parenting, friendships, and relationships at work.

Let me shift one more gear, to the passage from scripture this morning from the prophet Micah. For Micah, relationship with God was like a partnership, a marriage, a friendship. It was a two way street. There were also two elements in what God asked of God’s earthly co-creators. One was prayer and ritual, to get in touch with the holy. The other was to love and care for one’s neighbor, to live with care in this world.

Like our Israelite ancestors, we tend to revert to what is familiar, what is tradition, when things break down. "God," we say, "if you get me through this illness, this exam, this crisis, I’ll go to church every Sunday. I’ll lead worship." When we get rich and comfortable, we go to churches with higher status and fancier worship. We tend to think that we can buy ourselves out of trouble by doing more ritual worship.

Micah recognizes this tendency to revert to past traditions, as part of the human family history.

Hear his words:
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you (and I want you to repeat this after me and memorize it)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

The first lesson of this theme of generation to generation is to realize how easily we get stuck in an unexamined past. Micah knew it. We know it. Retreat is the most popular response to conflict and crisis. While there is much to learn from and cherish in our tradition, remember again that God calls us to take the next step into justice and kindness. That old chestnut from Santayana that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it is as true for individuals, couples, and churches, as it is for politicians, citizens, and nations.

Like the Magi of the Christmas/Epiphany story, we are called to be wise persons who use our knowledge of the past to travel into the future. or you’ll be receiving phone calls.

Prayer –
We are going to pray both for the gifts we have received from generations before and ways to grow from them. After each prayer, we’ll sing a verse of "Our God our Help in Ages Past"

Pause and consider the ways you have gone to the roots of your faith in times of trouble. Give thanks for those people in your life who have given you the gifts of your faith and your belief… O God our Help…

Consider a difficult issue you face right now. What is the wisdom of your generations before you on this? Hear their words and pray. O God Our Help

Now look at how you have found new paths of faith. Think of the most dramatic discovery or new belief that is quite your own. Use this to pray for the issues of your life right now. And realize that this new hope springs from understanding your past. O God Our Help…

Pray for wherever you are in life that you feel stuck. Pray for wisdom, perspective, and hope.

Pray for those in need of healing and grace, with confidence that these prayers do indeed make a difference.